Local Politics: Tim Ryan gives Democrats a puncher’s chance

He’s not Sherrod Brown, but the first Democratic candidate to enter the race to replace Sen. Rob Portman offers some of the same blue-collar appeal

Craig Calcaterra
Congressman Tim Ryan, of Ohio, spoke during a rally supporting gun control legislation outside the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville.
Aug. 8, 2019

Congressman Tim Ryan launched a campaign for Senate on Monday, becoming the first Democratic candidate to enter the race to succeed outgoing Republican Sen. Rob Portman. If, like me, you spend a lot of time on Twitter beefing about Ohio politics, Ryan's entry into the race has likely caused your out-of-state friends to ask you if he has a chance. Probably because of (A) Sherrod Brown and (B) the Dr. Seuss thing.

Ryan, who represents Youngstown, Akron and the squiggly bits in between, has, like Brown, done what few Democrats in Ohio have done of late: win elections. And like Brown, he has done so with support from a once reliably Democratic area that has increasingly trended red. Ryan's success with these voters is often attributed to his centering of workers in his political messaging, with campaign slogans like "cutting workers in on the deal," and sprinkling in some PG-13 profanity in order to let people know that he's serious, plain-spoken and maybe kinda gritty, dammit.

Ryan has been in Congress for more than 18 years, but his national profile only began to take shape recently. He got considerable press for his unsuccessful effort to unseat Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House following the 2016 election. He toyed with and then abandoned a presidential run in 2019. Most recently, he made the news in early March when he exploded on the House floor after Republicans spent days on-end claiming that Dr. Seuss Enterprises' decision to stop publishing six minor works with questionable racial portrayals somehow made the late author a victim of "cancel culture."

Video of Ryan's outburst went viral and made him a darling of the sorts of people who have long wished that Democrats would show some fire instead of hedging their bets in an effort not to offend moderate and conservative voters. Sorts like me, I'll admit, and sorts who cite Sen. Brown's plainspoken advocacy for workers as a way — maybe the only way — for a Democrat to have a chance in a state that offered even stronger support for Donald Trump in 2020 than it did in 2016.

But does he have a chance? Really? I'll grant that Ryan has a couple of things going for him.

For one thing he could have a clear field. Two other high-profile Democrats who had been considering bids have announced they will not seek the nomination; Dr. Amy Acton declined to run and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley will instead seek the Democratic nomination for the 2022 gubernatorial election. This should make early fundraising easy and enable Ryan to focus on messaging to all Ohioans, not just primary voters. In the meantime, a crowded Republican field will spend most of the next year at each other's throats, at least when they're not kissing Donald Trump's ring. 

Also in his favor: the congressman’s 2017 challenge of Pelosi, which may make it a bit harder for Republicans to cast him as a mere puppet on strings held by the polarizing House Speaker. Not that they've ever shied away from a bad faith attack, so they may do it anyway. Even so, it will not be hard for Ryan to make the case that he is not the pawn of a Democratic congressional leadership that is not particularly well-loved by Ohioans.

Still, I think it's premature to cast Ryan as Sherrod Brown 2.0. 

Despite his pro-worker rhetoric, Ryan's Congressional record is decidedly to the right of Brown's, with Ryan consistently falling in with rank-and-file Democrats and Brown standing as an outlier to the left. Likewise, the video that kicked off Ryan's campaign certainly aims to position him as the blue collar worker's candidate — he literally laces up work boots and walks through empty factories — but in it he strains to do what comes to Brown so naturally. Brown is not Mr. Smooth, but you'd never see him, as Ryan does, reading scripted lines to a 7-year-old boy about how "we need to make huge investments into our public infrastructure," or how "we can actually revitalize manufacturing and secure U.S. supply chains." It's not the most authentic opening move for a guy whose campaign depends on his appeal to the common man.

Still, Ryan is a legitimate, experienced candidate who, even if he has stumbled a bit out of the gate, at least seems to understand that the path for a Democrat in increasingly red Ohio demands an appeal to a working class that Democrats not named Sherrod Brown have taken for granted or pandered to for far too long. If he can take some of the self-conscious polish off that message, connect it to President Biden's massively popular infrastructure proposals and cast himself as the extra vote the Senate needs to bring blue-collar jobs back to Ohio, he'll have a puncher's chance.